Throughout all of the success that they've had since mid-March, there has been one constant with the Portland Timbers: they've been focused. Sharp, game in, game out, week in, week out. Ready to compete.
On Saturday night, facing the Montreal Impact at Providence Park, at long last, they weren't. Not by a long shot. They started the game slowly, painfully so, and were punished for it — conceding multiple goals in the first half for the first time all year, and taking a deserved deficit into halftime.
The sluggish start made plenty of sense. This was the club's third game in seven days, on the back of a long road trip, taking place just three nights after a highly-charged U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal in Los Angeles that ended in an official protest and an allegation of racial abuse.
Most crucially, the Timbers were playing it without the suspended Diego Chara — without whom they have not won in 19 — that's n i n e t e e n — straight games.
Portland did improve in the second half, and ended up with a 2-all draw thanks to an absolutely shocking pair of goalkeeping errors from Montreal's backstop Evan Bush, but several points are or are becoming quite clear.
Firstly, Chara should be getting MVP votes. This flatly is not a playoff team, let alone a title contender, if he isn't on it. Secondly, the Timbers have work to do to make themselves a the juggernaut at home that they seem to be on the road.
They've now failed to win three of their last four games at Providence Park, all against teams who have refused to give them space to operate in transition and instead sought their own opportunities that way. It's a worrying trend, even if it has not yet resulted in a defeat. Home draws are only a half a grade better.
The Timbers need, at least at home, to begin to evolve again — to figure out how to create consistent offense by building with the ball. They need Chara back. And they certainly need some rest before the ever dangerous Houston Dynamo come calling next weekend.
Montreal came out sitting deep and pinging balls towards their target wingers — Alejandro Silva on the left and the exquisite Ignacio Piatti on the right — to release pressure.
Both players caused trouble, and while it was Piatti who'd win five fouls on the night and hit the game's best pass, it was Silva whose work set up the first goal when he got the better of Julio Cascante in midfield, swept past Lawrence Olum, and set the table for Saphir Taider to score from the top of the box after 23 minutes.
Some 15 minutes later, the Timbers would get the goal back in bizarre fashion when Bush inexplicably dropped a pop-up of a cross from Zarek Valentin, and allowed Samuel Armenteros to pounce and tie the game.
But almost immediately, Bush would be — temporarily, at least — bailed out.
This time, it was center forward Mauro Mancosu who broke through the Timbers' backline with a straight run in behind, and when Piatti hung a 50-yard pass on his chest, he had the time and the space to bring the ball down and stroke it past Jeff Attinella to restore the Impact's lead.
It was Cascante who'd been caught unaware again, so unaware, in fact, that the crowd thought the Italian forward must have been offside when Piatti struck the decisive pass. He wasn't, not by at least a yard, and play resumed with the Timbers again chasing the game.
But the Timbers weren't chasing much of anything in the first half, and they trailed when it was brought to a close. It was tough sledding: the midfield of Lawrence Olum, Andrés Flores, and Cristhian Paredes struggled to establish any kind of rhythm, and space was hard to come by for the players ahead of them.
The second half, thankfully, brought an immediate improvement — thanks in large part Sebastian Blanco and Diego Valeri, who made the decision that it was time to kick it up a gear.
Blanco especially was a terror after the restart, the Impact had no answers for his pace or ingenuity. He carved out an early chance for Valeri with a lovely chip, but the Maestro couldn't get the contact required to take the ball past Bush.
Ten minutes later, the pair would have better luck. Blanco received the ball on the wing, took one look at Jukka Raitala, blew past him, and sent a cross towards Bush — who pushed it straight up into the air, started towards it, ran into Valeri, threw himself to the ground, and watched from his knees as Valeri headed into an empty net.
Bush claimed that Valeri had pushed him, as did the rest of the Montreal players who surrounded referee Fotis Bazakos pleading for goal to be reviewed. But the only move that Bazakos made was in the direction of the Montreal technical area, for the purpose of ejecting the irate first-year Impact manager Remi Garde.
And so Montreal, their advantage again negated by a grade-school goalkeeping blunder, were left in the unenviable position of trying to hang on for a point with their manager gone, the Timbers charged, and the Providence Park crowd baying for a go-ahead goal.
But with Bush having done his damage, the Impact were able to hold on. The Timbers had several half chances late on, including a spinning, outside-of-the-foot strike from Powell that forced a required a fine stop as it twirled toward the far corner, but no standout opportunity to net the winner.
All in all, it was difficult to begrudge Montreal its point. Were it not for the amateur goalkeeping, it would have been three. This is a team that has made massive strides since the start of the season, and showed for long stretches of this encounter as the more sure-footed side.
Samuel Piette was excellent in the middle of the park, as was Taider to the outside of him, while 36-year-old French veteran center back Rod Fanni, who appeared to flag midway through the second half trying to deal with Armenteros, was immense in the game's closing stages.
For the Timbers, this result, given the circumstances it was secured under, was not by a calamity by any stretch. Savarese was pleased with his team's fight in the second half, and rightly so. They didn't take the day off completely, though they easily could have.
The questions about this team now are about the longer term, the bigger picture. Liam Ridgewell, a healthy scratch on Saturday night, appears to be in semi-exile. Fanendo Adi, also a healthy scratch, is likely on his way out the door.
Sans those former cornerstones, does this team have enough individual quality in enough positions to hang with MLS's best? To take games to opponents? Or are they just a very, very difficult team to beat, and nothing more?
At this point, the jury is out. But it's worth noting that the Timbers have won plenty of games during this great run they're on by very thin margins. They're just sixth in the West on goal difference, despite being third on points-per-game. At some juncture, the bounces are going to start to even out.